Belgium: Divided Together

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Cedric Gerbehaye / Agence Vu for TIME

Man on a mission De Wever at the Belgian Parliament in Brussels. His N-VA party, the country's biggest, wants to see an independent Flanders

In the downtown Brussels office of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), Bart De Wever, the party's leader and quite possibly Belgium's most powerful politician, has spent the past hour trying to explain the complexities of Belgian politics. He's on the verge of giving up. "There's a certain level of absurdity," he says. "We are the country of surrealism. So we grow accustomed to it. We know that everybody laughs at us. We laugh as well. Of course, it's ridiculous."

Belgium has been a precarious construct since its foundation in 1830: it's a country of two halves, Flanders and Wallonia, whose people speak different languages and are perpetually squabbling. There are no national political parties, which means that a French-speaking Walloon can vote only for politicians in Wallonia, and the Dutch-speaking Flemish must stick to parties from Flanders. National governments must be formed via a coalition of these regional parties, many of which hold wildly diverging political views. Yet, it seems to have been working for almost two centuries. The question is, For how much longer?

In an election on June 13, De Wever's N-VA, which advocates breaking up the country, became Belgium's biggest party with 17% of the total vote. In Flanders, it and other separatist parties received the support of nearly half the population. The surge in the N-VA's popularity has been spearheaded by De Wever, 39, a charismatic former historian who calls himself a "Flemish patriot." De Wever's right-wing politics appeal to Flemish voters frustrated with the failure of traditional parties to implement more stringent policies on immigration control and penal reform. But he also capitalizes on growing ethnic tensions: specifically, Flemish resentment that French speakers don't bother learning Dutch and that Wallonia, the poorer region in the country's south, is reliant on Flemish subsidies.

Walloons have their own grumbles. They say Flemish assertiveness is akin to segregation: in some Flemish municipalities, for example, children are legally banned from speaking French in the playground and prospective house buyers cannot buy property if they don't speak Dutch. The southerners are also much more left-leaning than the Flemish on social and economic issues; the largest Walloon party, the Socialist Party (PS), wants to increase state spending, even though Belgium has a national debt that is nearing 100% of GDP.

But here's another Belgian paradox: while the country's 180-year-old union may be growing increasingly cantankerous at the political level, both halves of the country believe the marriage should stagger on. Even in Flanders, a recent poll found that 85% of the population would not support the dissolution of the federal government. "There is a chasm," explains Rudy Demotte, Wallonia's socialist regional prime minister. "But I have an absolute conviction that Belgium will continue to exist. It is almost an obligation to coexist."

Given the lack of public support for partition, De Wever finds himself in the befuddling position of trying to form a coalition with the PS, with which he shares little political common ground, in order to save a national government he doesn't even believe should exist. "The newspapers say, 'Hopefully, he will form a government and save our country,'" he says. "But in my party program, you can read that it is not a country worth saving." An accord between the mismatched parties is not expected before October, at the earliest. Not that the delay is necessarily a problem. Following the previous election in 2007, it took nine months for myriad political parties to forge a coalition. A caretaker administration — and a strong civil service — ensured the country ticked along just fine until then.

De Wever says his strategy is to offer the PS several concessions — including giving the Prime Minister position to their leader, Elio Di Rupo — in return for institutional reform that will devolve more powers, such as taxation and social security, from the federal to the regional level. The N-VA also backs a stronger Europe that can take over other responsibilities from the federal government, like defense, which the party believes will bring it closer to its goal of making the state obsolete. "My hope is that one day we will wake up and just notice that between Europe and the regions, Belgium will have evaporated," he says.

Some academics and analysts say that the surge of regionalism in Flanders — which coincides with growing support for separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia — is an unintended consequence of European integration. De Wever admits he "would never talk about Flemish independence if Europe was not there." As Belgium assumes the rotating presidency of the E.U. for the next six months, some European commentators have argued that the country is proof that it is impossible to achieve an "ever closer union" of Europe's varied ethnicities and nationalities. "Belgium was supposed to be a model of what Europe is about, which is reconciling diversity and holding people together within a common framework," says John Loughlin, fellow of European politics at Cambridge University. "If it can't hold itself together, it raises issues about the European project as a whole."

There are also troubling signs that Flanders' annoyance at having to send subsidies south to support Wallonia may become a familiar tension across all of Europe; thrifty northern European countries, led by Germany, have already expressed frustration at being obliged to support less efficient economies in the south. "The most pressing issue facing Europe is the strain on the euro. And Belgium shows how difficult it can be to maintain solidarity across different cultures, languages and ethnicities," says Frank Schimmelfennig, professor of European Politics at ETH Zurich.

But such rarefied talking points are far removed from the lives of most Belgians, who seem peacefully at home within the contradictions of identity that so baffle outsiders. At a recent Best of Belgium event originally planned for the Flemish tennis star Kim Clijsters and the Walloon Justine Henin (who pulled out because of injury), over 36,000 Belgians bought tickets — a world record attendance for a tennis match. Far from fueling tribalism, the event allowed the audience to wave national flags and, during a prematch ceremony, cheer a procession of successful athletes from both sides of the language divide. "For the man on the street, there are rarely language problems," says former Belgian Prime Minister Mark Eyskens, who's Flemish. "Our quarrels are usually exaggerated by politicians." Eyskens says that if there is one defining characteristic of all Belgians, it is their pragmatism: they are renowned for their bargaining spirit and their ability to forge complex solutions that more or less meet everyone's concerns. "We will argue, but blood is never shed," he says.

Indeed, De Wever is hardly a firebrand nationalist; although he has been associated with the far-right in the past, he now calls himself a reasonable conservative. "If you look at it from abroad, you would say, 'Game over, you can't bridge this,'" he says of trying to form a coalition government with his socialist, French-speaking neighbors. "But in fact I think we can." And then, after almost an hour of reasoned exposition on why and how he wants to break up Belgium, De Wever shows he is, for the time being at least, Belgian after all. Referring to the coalition talks, De Wever says, "Because it's so hopeless, I am becoming an optimist." He seems not to notice the contradiction.